Dr. Bender's Advertising Showdown

I was a guest lecturer at a composition class at Texas Woman’s University last week. My charge was to give a talk on advertising and marketing to some undergrads who will be building their own campaigns for a class project. Specifically, the lovely Dr. Bender asked that I talk about storytelling and audience.

A great story that sells (without words!) via Ads of the World

I began by asking what advertising must absolutely do. The answers I received, in the order I received them, surprised me:

  1. It must evoke an emotion
  2. It must get your attention
  3. It must be easy to understand
  4. It must persuade you to do something

This order surprised me because of how I had intended to split up the discussion. I would talk about advertising’s only required definitional purpose - to sell - and then talk about the importance of story, how it turns a coupon with a 99 CENTS sunburst into a work of art. But they pinned story elements right up front, and in front of the prime function, the thing that, to paraphrase Ogilvy, marks the difference between a successful ad and something strictly academic.

The challenge, I told them, is to communicate a product’s benefits by way of a good story, or in a creative manner. One my favorite recent examples of this is GE’s Enhance Your Lighting campaign for their Wink product, from BBDO New York.

“The Force” was a popular Super Bowl ad for the VW Passat a few Super Bowls ago, and it did something similar, with much less exposition and detail:

The two main benefits communicated here are premium car features (like remote start) at an affordable price (starting under $20,000). The story is so good, the benefits seem secondary, but if you are in the target audience, it makes you wish you could have a nice cool experience. Remote-starting your Passat doesn’t quite make you a Dark Lord of the Sith, but it feels cool, like magic - attainable magic.

Speaking of audience, I also discussed how really great ads can sell specifically to an audience without condescending or minimizing. For instance, the Man Your Man Could Smell Like sold Old Spice men's body wash to women, based on market research that women are a significant buyer in that category.


Then, a little later, Old Spice wanted to sell an Odor Blocker body wash specifically to men, so they did this:

It was also successful. And now you can see how two similar products in the same category are sold to very different audiences.

If you couch benefits in a good story, you are rewarding someone for learning about why they ought to try or buy a product. Every story has a door, and if you show people a door, they will want to walk through it. They will want to do whatever mental exercise you’ve set before them. You can ruin that transaction by obscuring the door, but if you leave the path open, they’ll get there.